The thought of doing a stress-reducing mindfulness course dedicating two and half hours every Monday night for eight weeks was making me feel stressed. "I don't have that kind of time," I wailed to nobody in particular (they were all too busy to listen). Plus, I had heard so much about this ubiquitous term "mindfulness"— even yoghurt businesses and aspirin ads were peddling it and you know when advertisers have co-opted a term, it's tipped into really annoying.
But feeling too stressed to consider a stress-reducing course sounded like maybe the problem wasn't the course.
In my first class I fell asleep during a 30-minute guided body scan. It was wonderful but I did feel a bit guilty — is it still mindfulness when there's absolute nothingness in your mind? Our homework that week was to do as many 30-minute guided body scans as we could, starting in the left toe and scanning every part until the right ear but I kept falling asleep. I never got past my hips and didn't even know we went down both arms until I managed to stay awake once - only because I was in a scorching bath. I wasn't sure "fear of drowning" was a mindful state.
There were other guided meditations I stayed awake through: a sitting one, a moving one, and a breathing one but the body scan was as irritating as the yoghurt ads. I still don't like it.
In week four I was meant to keep a diary of unpleasant things. I didn't keep a diary of unpleasant things and then had unpleasant thoughts about not doing it. Doing a mindfulness course is the opposite of any other course as there is no passing or failing. "You have to let go of achieving," our teacher, Eve Rudkin, said. What? No gold stars? "Almost everything we do is for a purpose, to get something or get somewhere, but in meditation this can be a real obstacle," she said. "Meditation is different from all other human activities, because even though it takes work and energy to do it, ultimately it's non-doing. It has no goal except be yourself." Then she added with a wry smile, "The irony is, you already are.
No goals! I couldn't even enjoy being rubbish at meditation; something I had never intended on being good at. I had to just keep practising.
The more I did, the more I realised I was never "just being". I have spent my adult life in my head, sprinting through my days. Analysing. Planning. Elaborating. Judging. Problem-solving. Reflecting. Predicting. Remembering. Wondering. Worrying. And then there's the relentless re-run of conversations or confrontations, which for me are way longer than the initial exchange. As Mark Twain said, 'I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.'
My mind is like a puppy, it's chaotic and busy and easily distracted and usually the loudest, bossiest, most emotive thought wins its attention. "Difficulties hold their power when we are fearful and avoid them," said Rudkin. "Mindfulness invites us to bring compassion to the difficulty, let them in and let them out, let them be and then they lose their power."
By week five I was calling Rudkin "Yoda" in my head. "You can't calm the storm so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass."
We learned about Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search For Meaning, who observed people in concentration camps. He discovered those most likely to survive were the ones who had the ability to observe themselves as they experienced things. That's it! Not genes. Not god. Not good luck. They carved out a tiny bit of space between stimulus (something happening) and their response. "Freedom," said Frankl, "lies in the gap" — because in that gap you can decide what you want to do instead of reacting on autopilot.
After hearing this, I wanted the gap. Give me the gap! Why didn't I learn about the gap in primary school?
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to the gap. The only path is practising observing yourself, your thoughts and, yes, your body. Back to the dreaded body scans. I needed a lie down.
In week seven something happened. My partner told a joke that was meant to be funny but it stung. I felt myself gearing up for my usual response: get huffy, walk away, then sulk until I get annoyed he doesn't know I'm sulking no matter how many silent darts I send by telepathy. Eventually, after running over the matter for a good hour or three, I say something snappy to hurt him back and then we have a proper tiff. This is not a smart approach but it's my way of dealing with most things.
But in this moment, instead of reacting, I had a sniff around for that gap. I knew my partner had no idea of the impact of the comment, so instead of doing my huffy routine I dropped below my mind and focused on the comment inside my body. Initially, like a pinching injection in the arm, it hurt but after facing it I was surprised to discover it wasn't unbearable. More like hot sauce in my veins than poison, I traced it around and once I sat with it for a while it became milder.
By the time it moved through my stomach I could feel the heat leave. It was okay. It was a stupid comment, but it didn't have to derail me. I didn't need to react. Not then anyway. We finished our chat and I waited 24 hours — a fine gap that would get the nod from Frankl, I'm sure — then calmly told him that the joke didn't make me feel good and I even made a joke about it. He didn't get defensive, we didn't have harsh words and, instead of the comment affecting me for 250 minutes, it lasted only about five.
I couldn't believe how much time I saved, not to mention the stress of all that sulking! This is what mindfulness is: observing yourself or others or stressful situations with curiosity instead of criticism or cocktails (sadly the last two don't work so well - I've tried). And the curiosity works even better with a bit of kindness thrown in — how parents treat small children when they're upset.
They say with mindfulness — unlike religion — if you have to try to convert people, then you're not doing it right. Don't meditate to fix yourself, heal yourself, improve yourself or redeem yourself. Don't shout about it or you'll annoy everyone and generate more ridiculous ads peddling it. But here's the rub. On days where I feel like I don't have time to observe my thoughts for 10 minutes and meditate, like today when I'm trying to write this story, I end up feeling more hectic. Time rushes by and so do I. But if I do find the time, then some days my thoughts are less chaotic and I might even have a shot at finding that gap.
"Imagine if you practised finding peace instead of stress," was another line from Rudkin. Imagine.